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Music Copyright 101 – Owning Your Creativity

by | Master Your Craft

If you’re an artist or band looking to release music, it’s essential to get your work legally
protected from being stolen, copied, or misused. But how do you go about doing this? Music
copyright can be a very intimidating subject to navigate for independent artists, and with good
reason. There are many tricky grey areas for ownership of a hook, melody, or lyric.

Nevertheless, you can’t defend any of these rights if your creative works aren’t officially
registered and your copyright recognized. This article covers the basic outline of music
copyright and highlights some of the necessary steps toward getting your music protected.
What is Copyright?

Musical copyright is defined as a publicly recognized form of protection of a person/s created
works. The creative works need to be in a tangible form, e.g., a lyrics sheet, production session, or even a simple voice recording of a compositional idea. Having a copyright on your intellectual
property also allows you the rights to the following:

● The rights to reproduce the work

● The requests to rearrange or rewrite the works.

● The rights to perform the work.

● The rights to display, distribute and sell copies of the work

● The rights to make use of the work with other media such as film or advertising.

● The right to grant the license to anyone to the rights mentioned above.

Copyright applies as soon as a composition is created and documented and does not
need to be published to be protected. However, it does need to be completely original. Using
ideas from other artistic fields such as film or literature or nullifies creative works’ originality.
There are various types of copyright within the arts and media spheres, and musical copyright is
split into two distinct departments.

Master Copyright

This pertains to a finalized composition in its printed or recorded
form. This could be a song’s master track or a .mp3 or WAV files of recorded work.

Composition Copyright

This refers to the various compositional elements that make
up a completed song or album. This could be lyrics, riffs, hooks, original samples, midi
information, or any other documented form of a creative idea that appears in a song.
Things such as harmony and rhythm are considered to be public domain and thus can
be copyrighted.

Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement occurs when a person or party uses someone else’s creative works
without their authorization. This could be a completed composition or a single element of a song
or recording. As mentioned earlier, you can only file for copyright infringement if your works
have been registered with the national copyrights board.

In 2013, Mavin Gaye’s estate famously filed for copyright infringement against songwriter’s
Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. In the case, the Gaye estate claimed that compositional
elements from his 1977 single ‘Got To Give It Up’ were copied for use on Thicke and Willams’
the co-written song ‘Blurred Lines.’ If you listen to the two songs consecutively, you’ll notice some
unavoidable similarities.

The dispute lasted for five years and sparked numerous debates over the nature of what was
considered actual original musical creation. In 2018, Williams and Thicke were found guilty of
copyright infringement and forced to pay over five million dollars in damages. They also had to
agree to pay half of all future royalties from their song to the Gaye family estate.

How to copyright your song

To have your songs copyrighted, you’ll have to provide a few things to your national
copyrights board:

● Lyric Sheets

● Music Notation of the song or compositional piece (this is not essential, but very helpful
as evidence in any potential future infringement disputes)

● Song information (song name, artist name, author name, performing artist/s name/s)

● Spit Agreement Sheets. This refers to any agreements you have between
bandmates,co-writers, distributors, publishers, etc. that involve splits on royalties for a

● Recorded versions of songs, e.g., mp3’s or WAV files.

Once you have these pieces of data documented, you’ll be able to register an account on the
US Copyright Office website. You’ll have to provide your name, a billing address, and a few other
contact details for registration.

After that, you will have to record and register every song you plan to release with the
Copyrights Office. This process does involve handling a bit of paperwork as well as some
administration fees. The good news is that you can process almost everything digitally, and it
gets easier every time you do it. You’ll have to upload every file that you register for copyright so
that it exists in the Library of Congress for legal and public reference.

It’s important to remember that your work is protected from the instant it is created, but you can
only use this protection when your copyright is registered with the national office.

Poor Man’s Copyright

Some creatives consider using this method as a shortcut to creating copyright for themselves.
The idea is that if you mail yourself a copy of your original work and leave it unopened, the
dated federal stamp on the envelope serves as a record of national registration. However, no
law recognizes this, and your creative work will still need to be officially registered with your
national office should you wish to protect yourself in an infringement lawsuit.


Knowing where and how to take ownership of your creative work is vital to ensuring that the
fruits of your labor land up in the right hands. While music copyrighting may seem like a
complicated and tedious process, there are only a handful of reasonable steps you need to
master to keep your work protected. Should you find that copyrighting is too much for you to
handle on your own, several online services offer you quick, informed assistance. Thanks for
taking the time out to read our outline on music copyrighting. We hope this article leaves you
feeling informed and enabled.

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